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The Love of Family

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John Gage stood leaning with his shoulder against the brick framing the window between his and his paramedic partner’s bunks. He was watching the rain fall in the gray light of the day. But, while his eyes were here in Carson watching the rain make patterns on the side of the building next door, his mind was a thousand miles away on a ranch on a reservation in the Midwest.

“Rain’s coming down pretty hard, huh?”

Roy’s voice behind him dragged some of Johnny’s attention back to the here and now. “Yeah,” he responded automatically.

“Hope it lets up soon. I hate making runs in the rain,” Roy said, trying to make a second attempt at engaging his partner.

“Yeah.”

Roy turned his gaze to Johnny’s face. He could see the faraway look in his eyes. The melancholy set of his features. He looked down and could tell that Johnny’s hands were fists in his pockets. Turning his head back to look out at the rain from the foot of their bunks, Roy suggested, “Maybe you should go back and see them on your next vacation.”

“Mmm,” Johnny half grunted. Then he narrowed his eyes a bit in slight confusion. He tilted his head toward Roy. “Huh?”

“Your family. Do ya good to see ‘em again. It’s been a while, hasn’t it?”

Johnny pulled a hand out of a pocket and traced a raindrop that had hit the window with the tip of finger. “Yeah. A long while.” He sighed. “I oughta.”

Roy walked over to his side of the head of his bed and leaned against the window sill, his right leg resting on his own pillow. He leaned his forehead against the glass, cushioning it with his right arm “Yeah. Ya should.”

The two friends stood silently together watching the rain, each within his own thoughts of family. The corner of Johnny’s mouth twitched up for a moment as Roy became part of those thoughts.

Then the tones sounded.

SQUAD 51…POSSIBLE HEART ATTACK… ….

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Roy backed the squad back into the left side of the bay at the station. He and Johnny just sat in the cab and watched the rain come down between them and the refinery as the bay door slowly slid down. As Mike walked past Roy from the bay door button, he looked into the rolled up window at the two men in the cab as if to say "you can come out any time now, guys". Roy and Johnny looked at each other for a moment then slowly opened their doors and got out of the squad.

Their shoes squished on the cement floor of the apparatus bay, leaving watery footprints as they walked. Clusters of drips boarded each man’s trail as they made their way around the dry engine towards the locker room. For a moment, the only sounds to be heard was the muted drumming of rain on pavement and brick, and the occasional “ke-tunk” of a mug of coffee being set down on the table in the dayroom. And, of course, the squish of two pairs of boots.

As Johnny pushed open the door to the locker room he saw Chet Kelly coming out of the latrine. He moved swiftly thru the door so Roy could enter and turned his back on Chet to step over the bench to his locker, hoping Chet would take the hint and keep his trap shut.

Chet took in his two waterlogged crewmates in the mirror over the sink where he was washing his hands and burst out laughing. “Boy! You two look like drowned rats!”

“Oh, shut up, Chet,” was the best Johnny could muster as he unbuttoned and peeled off his soaked uniform shirt.

“No, I mean it. What did you guys do? Decide to take a shower in your uniforms?” He was just getting warmed up. “I mean if you really wanted to do that, ya didn’t have to wait for a run-“

“Chet!” Roy cut off the heckling with a tone and volume usually kept in reserve for stopping his kids in their tracks. Chet stopped mid-sentence. Even Johnny looked up. “It’s raining, in case you didn’t notice,” he spit out, flinging his arm out in the general direction of outside. “It’s coming down cats and dogs and we were soaked before we even finished getting the equipment out of the squad. Now do ya mind?”

Somewhere during that, Johnny had turned back to the task of removing himself from his oversaturated clothes while trying to hide a smile and suppress a giggle. The linesman was just stunned. He’d never had the full force of Roy-the-Dad come down on him like that.

Chet visibly backed down. “Sorry, Roy. I was just trying to have a little fun. Ya know?” he said with an actual sound of contriteness in his voice.

Roy stood there in front of his locker and dripped at him for a moment. Then, with a huff, said “Yeah? Come talk to me after the engine gets toned out during…this.” With that he turned his back on Kelly and finally began to undress.

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“Hey, Roy!” Johnny was standing in the dorm with a coil of rope in his hands. His wet uninform was piled on top of the brick divider next to his bed. Without waiting for Roy’s response, he uncoiled the rope and started to tie one end to the leg closest to the divider and the walkway of the extra bed on the other side of the divider.

Roy finished buttoning his new, dry shirt and yelled back, “What?”

As he brought the rope up and over the divider and stretched it across his and Roy’s bed area, Johnny called back, “Bring your wet uniform out here with ya.” He finished by pulling the rope over the divider between Roy’s and Marco’s bed and tying it to the leg of that bed. He stood back and appraised his work.

Getting up from tying his boot laces, Roy shook his head. What was his crazy partner up to this time? As he tucked in his shirt, he considered yelling back again but decided against it. It was easier to just do as Johnny asked.

Walking into the dorm room holding his wadded up wet uniform, Roy was about to ask why, but then he saw his partner carefully arranging his own wet uniform over a tightly stretched rope above their bunks. He stood for a moment, speechless.

Johnny noticed Roy out of the corner of his eye. He grinned proudly at his friend and said, “Here, Roy. I figured with our luck we’ll get called out again a bunch’o times before this rain lets up and we might run out of dry uniforms. So…clothesline!” This last was said triumphantly with a flourish of his hands towards the line. He stood still, looking at Roy expectantly, and not a little hopefully.

Roy stood stunned. Johnny had actually come up with a good idea, made it happen and it seemed to be working. He walked over to where his enthusiastic other half was standing and inspected the line. It seemed to be holding up John’s wet uniform. Glancing at either end of the line showed him that Johnny had even thought to run the rope on the mortar line between the bricks. *Not bad,* he thought. Roy was impressed.

Standing back to give his partner some room, Johnny questioned, “Well?”

“It’s a great idea, Junior,” Roy said, smiling. He started to hang his own shirt and pants on the line to dry. “I like it.”

“Well, alright!” Johnny beamed, smacking his friend lightly on the back. “Alright!” He started to walk away, heading toward the door. “I’m gonna go get a cup o’ coffee. Yeah?”

“Yeah. I’ll be right there.” When he heard the dorm room door shut he shook his head in amazement. With a bit of a laugh, he spoke to the empty room, “I’ll be damned. It works.”

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Just as Roy’s hand hit the door to leave the dorm, the tones sounded. He was about to sprint around the front of the engine as the dispatcher called out for Engine 51 and Ladder 112. Smiling in relief, the now dry paramedic retreated back to the dorm doorway to get out of the way of the engine crew. As Chet jogged up to take his place on the rig Roy raised a hand and pointed at Chet meaningfully.

Chet grabbed his turnout coat and swung it on, sighing “Yeah, yeah, yeah.” Then the bay doors rolled up, everyone settled into their seats and away they went into the downpour, thankful that they weren’t in the old Crown anymore.

Roy restarted his trip across the bay into the kitchen. He rubbed his hands together in anticipation of feeling a hot cup of joe sliding down his insides. What he found was his partner staring out the window looking lost again.

Getting his cup of coffee in silence, Roy just watched Johnny watch the rain. “Ya know, Roy,” Johnny started, taking a sip from the mug in his own hand. “It was raining the day I left Cheyanne River. I don’t think it let up until we drove off rez into Meade County. It wasn’t heavy like this, but I thought it was the spirits of my ancestors crying for me for leaving home.” Another sip and a laugh. “I mean…it was just a typical, summer low pressure system. But...ya know…I was only 15.”

He turned and sat down at the table, leaning back in his chair and playing with his now cold cup with one hand while draping his other arm over the back of his chair, trying to look unaffected. Roy wasn’t fooled.

“Johnny,” Roy said, dropping into the chair next to his partner, “have you been back there since?”

“My brother and sisters came out here for my high school graduation. And my parents came back out when I graduated from the fire academy.”

“That’s not what I asked.”

“My brother came back to celebrate my 25th birthday. That was just before I met you.”

“Johnny.”

“Fine!” Johnny straightened his spine and turned toward his partner. His brown eyes opened wide to stare into Roy’s blue ones, as if defying him to say anything more. “I haven’t been back. There. Ya happy?” Keeping eye contact with Roy to keep him silent, Johnny rose from his chair. He then snapped himself around and strode to the couch to sit with Henry.

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ENGINE 51, LADDER 112…STRUCTURE FIRE…1225 EAST MAGNOLIA ROAD…ONE TWO TWO FIVE EAST MAGNOLIA…CROSS STREET CARSON…TIME OUT 11:24

It had only been a seven minute trip from stationhouse to scene, but already the lower half of Marco and Chet’s legs were soaked to the skin. As Mike slowed to let Chet out at the nearest hydrant the linesman braced himself for the rest of the soaking. The thought *Roy’s never gonna let me live this down* flitted thru his head as he jumped to the ground.

Ladder 112 was already on scene as 51’s pulled up to the abandoned fast food joint. Hank was kind of glad. He really didn’t want to have to think too much in this weather. Just follow someone else’s lead in where to place his men. And since he wasn’t Incident Commander, maybe he’d even see some action.

As the remainder of 51’s crew hit the ground, Capt. Barry Dorfman from 112’s came trotting over. “Hank, I got two of my guys on the roof, venting, and the other two took gear to bust open the rear door. Blaze seems t’ be centered in the back, kitchen area. Can I get two of youse on a hose from the front, thru the dining area, and ‘a hose run ‘round back for my guys to attack from that end. Back door opens straight into the kitchen.” Dorfman’s New York accent was almost too thick for Hank to understand, but he’d gotten used to it when they went to the IAFF convention together a few years back.

With a nod to Dorfman and a clap on the shoulder, Hank called out to his men, “Kelly! Lopez! I take an inch and a half in thru the front.” Then to Mike, “I’m gonna take a hose around the back to work it with 112’s men. I’ve got an HT if ya need me.”

“OK, Cap.”

In the time it took Hank to grab a hose and make it around the back of the building every body part, on every body, that wasn’t under a turnout coat was soaked to the skin. The guys fighting this fire from inside the building had it a tad easier than those who stayed outside.

Standing at the pump panel, the rain slowly seeped its way thru the water resistance of Mike’s turnout coat. Even with the collar up and tucked under the flange of this helmet, rain still somehow managed to make its way onto his neck and down his back inside his shirt. The normally unflappable engineer was miserable.

With the roof vented the rain helped the men make quick work of knocking out the fire. Shutting down the pumps, Mike readied the shovels, axes and other implements they needed for the clean up. He glanced over at 112’s truck and saw Martinez (if that’s what the name on the back of his turnout coat read, Mike wasn’t sure thru all the rain) waiting impatiently for the last guy from the roof to get off his ladder so he could so he could put it to bed. The faster this was done, the sooner they’d all be in dry clothes again.

________________________________________

The silence of Johnny and Roy’s truce was broken by the sound of the front bay door opening and the engine backing in to its spot by the dorms. This was followed by the squishsqweek of wet boots and one “ahh, shit”, a muffled bang, and “crap! I’m OK! Didn’t fall!” that sounded like Mike.

It was a full 10 minutes before the paramedics heard anything else from the other two-thirds of their crew since they returned from their run.

Captain Stanley was the first to come into the dayroom, looking for hot coffee. “Man, you guys weren’t kidding about the rain out there. By the way, great idea about the clothesline there, Roy. I’ve got Mike and Marco working on setting some up for the rest of us.”

Roy put up his hands and said, “Not me, Cap. That’s all Johnny.” He pointed to the grump on the couch who was studiously scratching Henry behind the ears.

Cap’s eyebrows nearly touched his hairline. Silently he jerked a thumb in Johnny’s direction. Roy nodded.

The lanky captain took a step in Johnny’s direction. Sensing the movement, Johnny looked up from the basset hound draped over one leg to the eyebrow-raised face of his boss. He raised his own eyebrows in silent question.

“About the ropes in the dorm…” Cap began, knowing what it would sound like to the younger man. He got the reaction he expected.

“Cap! I can explain. It’s just that Roy and I’ve got only so many uniforms and it’s rainin’, see and if we got called out more than we got unif…” the panicked paramedic’s words stuttered and tumbled out over each other as he tried to talk himself out of what he thought was trouble.

“Gage. Gage! I’m not yellin’ at ya. I came over here to congratulate ya, ya twit.”

“Congratulate me?”

“Yeah. That’s a brilliant idea ya had there, Gage, rigging up a clothes line. I’ve got the guys putting up some more for the rest of us before we all run out of dry clothes today.”

A slow smile spread itself across the lower half of Johnny’s face as the realization that he had done something to please his Captain filtered into his brain. “Yeah?” Then he remembered himself. “Well, yeah. Ya know, with the rain coming down the way it is,” he began to puff up as he got to his feet, disappointing Henry in the process.

Cutting Johnny off before getting caught in one of Gage’s self-aggrandizing speeches, the Cap held up a hand. “Well, I just wanted to let you know I’m glad you came up with that. Now, I’ve got some paperwork calling my name.” Deflated, Johnny stopped talking and just wandered back to the table.

As the Cap walked out, Chet walked in. One look at Roy prompted him to grouse, “Yeah, don’t say it,” as he made a bee line for the coffee pot on the stove. Grabbing a cup, he tipped the pot over it only to exclaim, “Only half a cup! Who leaves only half a cup’s worth of coffee in the pot? What’s wrong with you people? Can’t ya dump it out and make a fresh pot? What’s a guy supposed to do with only half a cup of stupid coffee?”

With a smirk, Johnny offered, “Uh, drink it while a fresh pot’s bein’ made?”

“Oh, har har,” Chet responded, downing said half a cup in one gulp and starting to make a new pot, not even realizing the irony in his action.

Walking into the kitchen, Marco announced, “Hey, Chet. I put your uniform over the clothesline.” Spotting Roy he started to open his mouth. Roy pointed at Johnny, who was sitting slumped over the table with one hand propping up his head. Marco wisely closed his mouth again.

Finally, the last member of Station 51 walked into the kitchen. Mike walked over to the counter, picked up two cups, filled them with now fresh coffee and was halfway back to the door before anyone even noticed him.

“Oh, that’s just great! I don’t even get the first cup of my own coffee,” Chet complained to the room in general and Mike’s retreating back in particular.

“Sorry, Kelly,” Mike tossed over his shoulder. “Cap told me to get him a cup.” And he was gone.

Finally getting to pour himself a cup of hot brew, Chet plunked himself down at the table. Looking over at Johnny, he asked, “What’s up with you, Gage?”

Barely glancing up from the invisible stain he was picking at on the table surface, Johnny responded, “Huh? What?”

“You. You look like someone just killed your goldfish.”

Johnny dropped the hand that was holding up his head. He leaned over the table towards Chet and pointed at him with his other hand. With his eyes narrowed as if trying to will Kelly in to being serious, Johnny asked, “When was last time you saw your parents?”

Chet looked stunned for a second. “Uh…well, we worked New Year’s, so…Christmas.”

Just then, Mike had the unfortunate timing to walk back into the dayroom and catch Johnny’s attention. Gage swiveled his accusing finger at the engineer before he’d even had a chance to sit down. “Mike. When was the last time you saw your parents?”

Without batting an eyelash at this odd question Mike answered, “Yesterday.” To the quizzical look on his questioners face he explained, “They only live 20 minutes away.”

Dismissing Mike with an aggravated wave of his hand, Johnny turned to Marco. Before Marco could open his mouth to answer the question that was apparently on the table right now, Johnny stopped him with, “Yeah, and Marco, you live down the street from yours.”

Abruptly, Johnny braced his hands on the edge of the table and stood up, scraping his chair back in the process. He shook his head and muttered, half to himself, “You guys don’t understand.” Then louder, as he walked from the dayroom, “You just don’t understand.”

Chet made as if to get up and follow him, but a look from Roy stayed him in his seat. Everyone knew how close the two paramedics were. If Roy felt that he needed to be the one to see to Johnny then no one was going to argue.

________________________________________

Roy found Johnny back by the window again. “Johnny,” he began carefully, “you know I understand.”

“Do you, Roy? Do you, really?”

“Yeah, I think so.” Roy knew he was treading on thin ice, both with Johnny’s apparent fragile state and his own emotions. “I mean, I haven’t talked to my mom since the day after my wedding. And you know I only see my dad around the kid’s birthdays. So, yeah,” he took breath. He knew it wasn’t really the same, but Roy also knew that his partner needed someone who could relate to what he was feeling right now. “I think I have an idea.”

“Yeah, Roy,” John’s dark eyes seemed even darker as he stared out into the still rainy afternoon. “But your relationship with your folks is a lot different than mine is…was…is with mine.” His voice got so quiet on that word “was” that it was almost whispered.

“Johnny, yours is a matter of distance. You’re not not speaking to your folks, they’re just so far away that-“

“-time just keeps slippin’ away,” Johnny finished for Roy.

In a rare show of brotherly affection, Roy put his arm around Johnny’s back and clasped his hand on Johnny’s shoulder. “Junior, no matter how much time has slipped away you’ll always have a better relationship with your parents than I ever will, or ever had, with mine. Your family will be thrilled to see you again, it doesn’t matter how long it’s been since the last time, and you know it. Deep down, you know it.”

TBC